Professor Provides Glimpse Into Atomic World

Tom Ekkens, Walla Walla University Physics Department chairman, has built an instrument that examines things as detailed as 7 nanometers by using a handful of basic, everyday materials. Usually a device with this capability is commercially available for thousands of dollars. This instrument is called a scanning tunneling microscope, and Ekkens has found a way, for under $100, to achieve results similar to those of commercial models.

The physics professor was walking by PVC pipes at The Home Depot one day and suddenly had an idea: “I can use these to see atoms.”

He uses the pipes and a handful of other easily obtained items, like hot glue, a battery pack, a guitar amplifier pickup, a tiny metal tip, a small motor with a controller, a computer with a data processing card and two software programs he wrote, to build a functioning scanning tunneling microscope.

Ekkens has his students build their own microscopes in three laboratory sessions spanning about nine hours. The best student microscope imaging rendered a small bump that was 160 atoms wide.

“It is my goal in this class to help my students realize that they can build something that does extraordinary things out of common parts,” Ekkens states.

Featured in: October 2014